A dramatic medical history that reveals the progress and the stumbles, the personalities and the rivalries, in the race to find a vaccine for rubella, or German measles.
Science magazine writer Wadman, who has a medical degree from Oxford and a journalism degree from Columbia, has long covered the politics of biomedical research. As she makes immediately clear, rubella, like Zika, inflicts terrible damage on babies whose mothers are infected during their pregnancies. In the 1960s, the search for a safe and effective vaccine was just beginning. Wadman focuses on Leonard Hayflick and Stanley Plotkin, scientists at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, and cell line WI-38, derived from the lungs of a fetus legally aborted in Sweden (and used without the mother’s consent), which subsequently became key to developing a vaccine that has been given to hundreds of millions of people. Besides informing readers of the role of fetal tissue in biomedical research, the author reveals the shocking methods used by researchers to test vaccines: prior to today’s stringent laws about informed consent, the test subjects were often institutionalized mentally disabled children. Rivalries and shenanigans abound in Wadman’s complex story. One night, Hayflick removed ampules of the cell line from the lab at Wistar, packed them up in his car, and carried them to his new job at Stanford University. Accusations and lawsuits ensued, as well as struggles for funding, and pharmaceutical companies and government agencies eventually became major players. Wadman’s story is much more than just the rubella story, however, for it doesn’t end with that vaccine. Strains derived from WI-38 are used today in the manufacture of most human virus vaccines, including those for polio, shingles, mumps, rabies, and hepatitis, and Hayflick’s work with cell biology has led to discoveries that have significant implications for theories of human aging.
An important story well told, featuring the drama and characters needed to make this a candidate for film adaptation.